In the Arena

Class Warfare: The Middle Class Is Losing

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Peggy Noon today picks up a theme, recently invoked by David Brooks, which has become a relentless Republican talking point on the presidential stump: Barack Obama is a divider or, as Newt Gingrich inimitably put it to a crowd in Davenport, Iowa, which I report in my print column this week: “The President is a sincere believer in class warfare radicalism.”

This is hilarious, on its face. One thing that we’ve learned about Barack Obama over the past few years is that he is a flagrant, fervent opponent of radicalism of any sort. He has rendered himself a cream puff in his constant pursuit of compromise with the real radicals operating in American politics right now, the Congressional Republicans. His signature initiatives–health care, Wall Street reform, anti-terror policy overseas–either are Republican in origin (health care–I’m looking at you, Newt) or a continuation of policies favored by the Bush Administration (a soft hand toward Wall Street; a strong hand against al Qaeda and its allies).

And so it is sort of rich for Republicans to cry “class warfare” when their 30-year no-tax, deregulatory mania has slowly gutted the American middle class. And it is even more brazen for Republicans to reject the President’s civility and attempts at compromise at every turn, then screech when he finally, finally, begins to defend himself.

The guy just can’t seem to catch a break. The American people support his economic policies in the 60-70% range. They support his performance in the 40% range, in large part because he has been unwilling to really duke it out with the Republicans. This has been true for several reasons: First, he came to office in an economic crisis in 2009 and assumed that even Republicans might respond patriotically to the dire moment, joining him in a real national effort to avert a Greater Depression (although, it is true, that his willingness to allow the House Democrats to pad the stimulus package with their musty wish-list was a mistake). This desire for unity is one possible explanation for Obama’s unwillingness to go after the big banks as Paul Volcker and others not often mistaken for Marxists advised him to do. Second, he is very clearly a guy who does not like confrontation–he doesn’t get the visceral satisfaction that, say, Gingrich does from saying vicious, angry things. For a guy who clearly loves his sports, he seems to have an allergy to scoring points. If anything, this has been a plaintive Rodney King sort of presidency: can’t we just all get along?

And so I plant myself firmly in the camp of Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann–hardly radicals–who believe that Obama’s most important job is to go out and make a convincing case for what he believes in the coming year, even if it means occasionally getting a bit testy. After all, his position on major economic issues like jobs and deficit-reduction are already as centrist as you can get; any further moves to the right and he’ll slip past George H. W. Bush on the political spectrum–in fact, Obama stands to the right of Ronald Reagan on issues like entitlement reform: no other President of either party has proposed raising the retirement age for Medicare.

Some perspective is necessary here–but, more important, some self-defense from the President. And a firm message to people like Peggy Noonan: What Obama is supporting are not policies that divide America, especially on the major economic issues, but a sane, moderate program of action that a significant majority of Americans favor. To ask the President not to support those policies, as forcefully as he can, defies not only reason and best politicial practices, but also the best interests of this country.